The Deficit the EU Should Really Worry About Is Not Fiscal – It’s Democratic
Earlier in February, the European Commission – the executive arm of the EU – published a report outlining a pessimistic economic outlook and persistent substantial market risks in the region, with the projected real GDP growth rate under 2 percent for 2020. The report came at a time the strength of European institutions is tested not only by poor macroeconomic indicators but also by declining citizen confidence in the ability of supranational governance to be transparent and accountable. According to a 2018 Eurobarometer poll, less than two-thirds of Europeans are satisfied with the opportunities for individual citizens to participate in political life. More alarmingly, voter turnout for the European Parliament elections has fallen by over 30 percent since 1980s and now constitutes only 40 percent of the EU population.
Weakening citizen trust – the main symptom of the EU’s growing ‘democratic deficit’ – and worsening economic performance are, however, not just coinciding with one another by chance. The perceived legitimacy of the EU, more so than that of the majority of political arrangements, is highly dependent on its delivery of satisfactory economic results to member-states. Economic self-interest, as illustrated by Britain’s break from Brussels, is a powerful driver of both regional integration and disintegration. Despite the limitations of examining the European project through a performance efficiency lens, the notion that a single common market – with standardized regulations and supervisory mechanisms – is good for member states continues to prevail in explanations of the EU’s emergence and survival.
The 2010 crisis, low levels of growth, high unemployment, and Italy’s current standoff with Brussels over its 2019 budget all undermine result-based legitimacy of the EU and can leave lasting damage on its authority. National governments and the public might be prompted to question the economic desirability of staying in the Union. While unlikely to follow the path of the UK and withdraw completely, countries can potentially model their conduct after Italy and undermine the internal cohesion of the EU by disregarding its rules.
No less urgent are concerns about the transparency and accountability of the European system of governance, oftentimes perceived as an elitist, unelected technocracy. Many citizens believe that supranational decision-making is becoming only more inaccessible to them due to its increasing complexity. The worsening of regional democratic deficit manifests itself in lower voter turnout and overall weaker citizen support for the European project.
The perceived failure of regional institutions to provide member-states with clear and otherwise unattainable economic benefits and the unresponsiveness of EU governance to the concerns of ordinary citizens both pose a major threat to the continuous success and even survival of the European project. However, the debate surrounding these two shortcomings of the current institutional setup not only tends to overlook the interconnectedness of the two issues but oftentimes portrays democratization of regional governance and economically optimal outcomes as being at odds with each other. From the ancient Greeks to the modern-day libertarians, the ‘short-sightedness and ignorance’ of the masses are cited as the reasons institutional arrangements – especially in spheres so technical as fiscal and monetary policy – should be protected from excessive popular influence if they are to yield desirable results. In the sphere of European economic and financial governance, however, the opposite seems to be true.
The undemocratic procedures by which European budgets and money are managed erode not only citizen confidence but the performance efficiency of European institutions. Greece provides perhaps the most telling lesson in the importance of transparency and accountability in economic governance on the national level, which is no less applicable to supranational institutions. It was, after all, falsification of data on the levels of sovereign debt that triggered the country’s crisis in 2010 and its subsequent spillover into the rest of the eurozone. The Greek government’s failure to accurately report on the country’s financial standing led to dramatic downgrades of Greek government bonds and overall reduced the attractiveness of the country’s financial markets.
That same year, several EU audit institutions published a joined report that acknowledged the importance of fiscal transparency and proper oversight of public finance management in crisis prevention and mitigation. Following the financial turmoil of 2010, a new strategy for the development of the European Monetary Union (EMU) identified “democratic legitimacy and accountability” as one of the five building blocks forming a more robust monetary system. All in all, EU officials seem to be coming to the realization that democratic accountability is more than a just complementary dimension of political legitimacy. It is an essential component of a sound economic and financial structure, upheld by both voter and investor confidence.
The unwillingness of technocratic elites to introduce democratic controls to the procedures that govern EU’s financial and monetary affairs will only strengthen the appeal of populism. Arguments pointing out the benefits of a technocratic form of governance over national economies and public finance are typically underpinned by the assumption that the average voter cannot be trusted with control over her country’s power of the purse. Such contempt for the ordinary citizen is what gives validity to claims like that of Michael Grove, who, at the height of Brexit, announced that the UK people “have had enough of experts.”
What makes technocratic arguments more dangerous is their propensity to shy away from the evident need for greater economic and financial literacy among the populace. Aside from the established associations this form of literacy has with countries’ national prosperity, citizens with a clearer understanding of the issues discussed away from the prying eyes of the public have better chances of becoming legitimate participates in policy debates that affect their everyday lives. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect an ordinary European to acquire the technical expertise necessary to understand all the intricacies of fiscal and monetary affairs of their countries and the EU, yet unelected officials deliberating on vital issues behind closed doors out of an irrational fear of the masses should seem no less absurd.